Are you a frequent flyer who suffers from tinnitus? Here are a few tips to help you avoid “airplane ear” and help stop the ringing in your ears.
Since the dawn of civilization, we’ve lived in a mobile society. Cavemen used to follow the herds and would constantly travel looking for food sources until they finally settled down.
Today, we’re much luckier since our travel is usually limited to visiting family that lives halfway across the country or in another part of the world, going to a business conference in a different city, or maybe just getting away to somewhere exotic. The difference between now and then? Travel is so, so much easier now because we have several options for getting from one place to another even if some of them aren’t ideal.
You could spend a day or more in a car or months on a boat on your way somewhere, but even that sounds pretty awful. We’re not exactly traveling the Oregon Trail here.
Often airplane travel is the only reasonable option for getting from here to there. But If you have tinnitus, a simple plane trip can be anywhere from simply uncomfortable to absolutely unbearable.
However, if you understand how planes can impact tinnitus, you can then find ways to ease your symptoms and get back to flying like a bird through the sky and traveling the world.
What Causes Tinnitus?
Tinnitus, which affects nearly 50 million Americans to varying degrees, is a symptom that can have many causes like:
- Ear trauma
- Certain medications
The persistent ringing, humming, static, or other sounds that people hear may be either subjective, meaning that only the person with the tinnitus can hear it, or objective. In the rare case of objective tinnitus, a doctor can insert an instrument that can actually “hear” the sound.
Either way, when flying, it can make relaxing difficult. It’s difficult to hear the flight attendant or a travel companion and could even turn painful. In fact, there are a number of things that can make tinnitus worse.
What Is Airplane Ear? (And What Can I Do About It?)
Airplane ear happens when stress is put on your eardrum and middle ear due to changes in air pressure. The hallmarks of airplane ear are discomfort and a feeling of fullness in your ears, accompanied by muffling of sounds, all of which may present themselves in varying degrees.
Airplane ear most often occurs when the plane is either ascending or descending – basically when the plane’s altitude is rapidly changing. It can also happen in either one or both ears. The condition typically only lasts for a short time, but if it continues for a few hours, you should contact a doctor or hearing specialist.
Is It Okay to Fly With Tinnitus?
So you’re on the airplane, your baggage is safely stowed in the overhead bin and you even have your seatbelt properly buckled. And then your ears start ringing and you can feel your tinnitus coming on strong. Should you pull open the emergency doors and make a dramatic exit down the inflatable emergency slide?
No. No, you shouldn’t (opening an emergency door when there’s no emergency is a felony… so that should be avoided). So, in that case, should you call over a flight attendant and try to get off the plane?
Only you can really answer that question. But let’s put it this way: in the vast majority of cases, flying itself will not impact or exacerbate your tinnitus in any way. Even in those cases where your tinnitus may flare up due to a travel-related issue, it’s still usually going to be safe for you to fly (that said, if you’ve recently undergone ear surgery or have sustained damage to your eardrum, you’ll want to talk to a medical professional before you finalize your flight plans). So, the short answer is that, yes, it’s usually okay to fly with tinnitus.
Can Flying Worsen Tinnitus?
Usually, flying and tinnitus don’t interact with each other all that much. But there a few tangentially related ways that flying can worsen tinnitus symptoms:
- Engine noise: If your tinnitus is often exacerbated by any loud noises, then having a seat next to a jet engine will likely cause a flare-up. (It’s not the flying itself here that causes the issue, it’s the noise.)
- Adjusting to Air Pressure: If your ears are slow to adjust to changes in air pressure, your tinnitus could indeed worsen during your flight (especially during take-off and landing). This has more to do with how well your eustachian tube is working than your tinnitus, but your tinnitus symptoms can worsen nonetheless.
- Stress: Here’s probably the most common way that flying will worsen your tinnitus: stress. Your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure spikes–traveling can be stressful! You stress over arriving at the airport early, you have anxiety going through security, you hustle to your gate to make your flight. And you wouldn’t be the first person to stress out about being trapped in an aluminum tube 40,000 feet above the ground. (In all seriousness: flying is the safest way to travel.) All that stress can significantly exacerbate or trigger your tinnitus symptoms.
So, in most cases, it’s not the flying that’s causing your tinnitus. It’s just a few things related to the flying. That might not be much of a comfort, but know what’s actually making your tinnitus worse can help you determine the best way to prevent your specific tinnitus symptoms.
Tinnitus and Eustachian Tubes – What’s the Connection?
That said, if you have tinnitus and you also have problems with your eustachian tubes (or your tinnitus is directly caused by issues with your eustachian tubes), then it’s likely flying could cause your tinnitus to get worse. If your ears can’t equalize the pressure, your eardrum can be stretched in such a way that your tinnitus will feel louder and more painful. This can be quite uncomfortable.
How Flying Worsens Tinnitus
Planes produce what tinnitus sufferers would consider the perfect storm. They’re loud plus the ascension and landing pressure changes, as mentioned above, require your inner ears to adjust to a new altitude quickly. Depending on how severe the tinnitus is, these two conditions can make flying so bad that you’ll wish you had taken that 24-hour car ride all the way down to Disney World.
How Sound Can Make Ringing in the Ears Worse
Whether or not the noise impacts your tinnitus will depend on the type of tinnitus you have. Most people have high-frequency tinnitus. Their symptoms get worse with high-frequency sounds. Jet engines function mostly at a mid-frequency range. Because of this, you may not experience any worsening symptoms at all from the jet noise and should be able to enjoy your flight with no issues (besides no leg room and sub-par in-flight meals).
If however, you have tinnitus that is responsive to mid-frequency sounds or your tinnitus aggravates with any loud sound, then plane travel without planning may be uncomfortable (in addition to the bad food and cramped space).
Is it Okay to Fly With an Ear Infection?
Tinnitus is a secondary symptom. That is, it’s always caused by something. And if your tinnitus is caused by an ear infection, you might have questions about whether you or not you should reschedule your flight.
In general, flying with an ear infection is not advised, especially for children. Ear infections have a tendency to interfere with the way your eustachian tubes equalize pressure. For most people, the worst that happens is a painful, uncomfortable flight. But flying with an ear infection has been known to rupture an eardrum or two.
Certainly, it’s possible to fly with an ear infection and suffer no pain or discomfort. But the more intense your ear infection is, the greater the risk of an adverse reaction to flying. So if you’ve got a flight booked and you also have an ear infection, it might not be a bad idea to get things checked and see if rescheduling might be a good idea.
Why Do My Ears Pop on an Airplane?
Most people are accustomed to their ears popping when they ascend and descend in an aircraft, but tinnitus sufferers find this much more of an ordeal.
Inside your middle ear, behind the eardrum, you have a eustachian tube. This tube is responsible for helping to keep the air behind the eardrum at the same pressure being experienced on the outside. The eustachian tube works by releasing a bubble of air into the middle ear to equalize pressure. If the eustachian tube is blocked or not functioning well, it can’t do this.
If the eustachian tube doesn’t do its job, then a vacuum is created that “sucks” the eardrum’s thin membrane into the inner ear. This action stretches the delicate layer unnaturally, causing sounds to become even more distorted and, at times, causing pain.
This impacts tinnitus sufferers even more acutely because the ringing in their ears is amplified when the membrane is stretched. Those who have a dull ringing will notice the noise much more, while sufferers who have debilitating tinnitus will find the noise to be so much worse.
How to Prevent Ringing in Your Ears on an Airplane
To prevent tinnitus, you will need to consider whether you need protection against sound-related tinnitus, altitude-related tinnitus or both. Then apply these strategies:
- Bring and wear sound-canceling headphones or earmuffs. You don’t have to wear them the whole flight. Most people only experience discomfort when engines are at their loudest. That’s during take-off.
- Do not wear earplugs. Earplugs can actually intensify your tinnitus.
- Ask, in advance, to be seated away from the jets because of your health condition. This will be in the front of the plane. (Bonus: You’ll get to exit the plane a lot faster, too, when you sit up front!)
- Yawn and swallow as you ascend. Any activity where you’re moving your jaw helps open up those eustachian tubes, which allows them to do their job better. Some find that chewing gum or sucking on hard candy helps as well.
- Don’t fly congested. The eustachian tubes become clogged when you’re congested, and it can be painful in multiple ways. If you must fly, take a decongestant before flying to relieve these symptoms.
- Stay awake during the plane’s ascent and descent, as the eustachian tubes have a much harder time adjusting while you’re asleep.
- Keep yourself distracted with in-flight entertainment, music, or even reading a book. These distractions can help you take your mind off the noise in your ears, especially if the other remedies don’t work as well. You could always try having a conversation with your seatmate, but you might want to approach that one on a case-by-case basis (red-eye flights are not the time to make new friends).
Bonus Travel Tips for People with Tinnitus
Relax before your flight. De-stressing can lower your blood pressure, which has been shown to lessen symptoms. Get a good night’s sleep. Do some yoga. Practice deep breathing. You’ll feel more relaxed and less prone to the effects of flying.
Eat a meal that’s rich in iron. Iron deficiency has been linked to tinnitus and hearing loss, so try to have a meal with meat, leafy greens, beans, or other iron-rich foods.
Wear your hearing aid during take-off and landing. It might sound counterintuitive because it can make the sound seem louder, but even without your hearing aid, the sound waves are still entering your ear. At least, with the hearing aid, you have a better sound range, which will typically reduce symptoms.
If you’re still experiencing worsening symptoms while flying, speak to an audiologist. Get your hearing tested and discuss other relief options with your doctor.
Page medically reviewed by Kevin St. Clergy, Audiologist, on December 4, 2019.